By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister says the "stars are aligning" for a Bahamian tourism surge in 2018, with the Government "100 per cent behind" Baha Mar's full opening.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism, told Tribune Business he was "very optimistic" on the Bahamas' growth prospects as a result of Baha Mar's completion, the return of previously-closed room inventory and the potential Grand Lucayan sale.
Speaking just before Sarkis Izmirlian filed his $2.25 billion damages claim against Baha Mar's main contractor, Mr D'Aguilar said the $4.2 billion development's previous woes were now "water under the bridge" and the Bahamas needed to instead focus on making it a success.
He could not, though, resist a dig at the former Christie administration, arguing that while it "liked to claim credit" for rescuing the project it had left "$2 billion on the table" that could have boosted Bahamian jobs and the economy.
But Mr D'Aguilar, a former Baha Mar Board member under Mr Izmirlian's ownership, said he was "very encouraged" about the prospects for the Bahamas' main industry provided this nation escaped a major hurricane - something he described as "a big if" based on recent storm seasons.
"I'm very optimistic for 2018," the Minister told Tribune Business, while declining to give a percentage growth estimate. "I think all the stars are beginning to align.
"We have Baha Mar coming on stream and kicking in. The Coral Towers [at Atlantis] has come back on stream, and the RIU. We have a number of properties that were closed for renovations coming back into operation, and there's keen interest in investing in the Family Islands based on projects coming across our table and getting approved."
The Ministry of Tourism recently announced that booking numbers for the period November 2017 to January 2018 were ahead of prior year comparatives by 16.6 per cent, although Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) data showed that room revenues for the first 10 months of the year were off 7 per cent, with both occupancy levels and rates down.
"In 2016, we had depressed arrival numbers due to the hurricane," Mr D'Aguilar said. "This year  we had a better outlook, and the numbers returned to normal. We also got a bump from other areas in the Caribbean being damaged, and persons looking for alternative places to come, with the Bahamas ranking fairly high.
"I think we're scoring very highly in all the rankings of the travel industry. We just have to stay focused on our marketing, and continue to put valuable marketing resources into online and engines that travellers are increasingly using to book.
"Barring any hurricanes or weather-related disasters, and that's a big 'if', I'm very encouraged. March is looking better than last year because of where Easter falls."
Mr D'Aguilar said Freeport, where the Grand Lucayan's closure had taken over 1,000 rooms, or 59 per cent of the island's total inventory, out of service, had been "the drag on our numbers" in 2017.
While the Toronto-based Wynn Group has reached the Letter of Intent (LOI) stage with the Grand Lucayan's owners for a second time, no purchase has yet been concluded. Should a deal be consummated, Mr D'Aguilar said he did not expect a renovated and reopened resort "to fully kick-in until 2019".
The Minister of Tourism, meanwhile, reiterated the Government's "anxiety" for Baha Mar to fully open, given its importance to GDP growth, job creation and increased hotel room inventory in both the short and long-term.
There was little to no official government reaction to Chow Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE) recent confirmation that it had closed its acquisition of Baha Mar, but Mr D'Aguilar said the presence of himself, the Prime Minister and other senior officials at related events and openings "demonstrated" the administration's support for the property and its new owner.
Dr Hubert Minnis, while in Opposition, had said his government would find a 'real buyer' for Baha Mar if no transaction was closed, but Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business: "The Government is 100 per cent behind getting Baha Mar open, and supporting Bahamian employment and economic activity happening in this economy.
"We continue to be very anxious to get it open and operational as soon as possible to get the employment bump, and spur the creation of jobs. They're an integral component of the economy, vacation experience, and the number of new rooms they're putting into the market should expand GDP."
Baha Mar should increase the Bahamas' total hotel room inventory by 2,100 when its final property, the Rosewood, opens in March/April 2018. The $4.2 billion project, though, continues to be a 'political football' with the Government and now-Opposition having 'swapped sides' since Mr Izmirlian's ouster.
The former developer's latest lawsuit against China Construction America (CCA) has reawakened the controversy over the project's handling, at least as far as the former Christie administration is concerned, with its former Cabinet Ministers jumping to a defensive posture while slamming Mr Izmirlian.
"The PLP like to claim credit for this," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business of Baha Mar's progress prior to Mr Izmirlian's latest legal filing, "but I respectfully suggest it was delayed for two years by them.
"We need not rehash this any more; it's water under the bridge to me. We left $2 billion on the table. But enough of the talk, who caused what and who owed what to whom. The key is to get it operational and open. It's just a very unfortunate experience what happened; it is what it is.
"We've got to look forward and stop looking back. If the PLP want to claim credit for it, go ahead. My belief is that it cost us $2 billion."
Mr D'Aguilar expressed hope that Baha Mar, which is scheduled to add a further 2,000 employees over the next year, will 'soak up' some of those laid-off from the public sector as the Government 'right-sizes' the civil service.
"This is what drives the economy; the private sector creating employment," he told Tribune Business. "We're anxious to get it open, and those persons released by the Government to get a chance to be re-employed.
"This is the way to grow your economy; you let the private sector drive the growth. The previous government tried to solve the unemployment problem by expanding the public sector, and this policy does not work."